Food Safety Focus (81st Issue, April 2013) – Food Safety Platform
Added Choline, Taurine and Nucleotides in Formula Products – Are They As Good As They Claimed?
Reported by Ms. Melissa LIU, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section,
Centre for Food Safety
In the previous issues, we have discussed the micronutrients, macronutrients and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in formula products and foods for infants and young children (0-36 months). In this issue, we will look at some other substances added to these products and study whether they could bring additional health benefit to infants and young children.
Addition of Choline, Taurine and Nucleotides to Formula Products
As explained in the previous issues, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) has required formula products for infants and young children to contain a number of nutrients in prescribed amounts to ensure they meet the normal nutritional requirements of infants and young children. However, on top of these essential compositions, manufacturers often add other substances to formula products, claiming that they bring additional nutritional benefit on various aspects. Choline, taurine and nucleotides are some of the examples.
Benefits of choline, taurine and nucleotides added to formula products still lack international consensus
Choline plays a role in the structural integrity of cell membranes, as well as in lipid and cholesterol transport and metabolism. Concerning its function in brain development, information mainly came from animal studies. As for claims related to the function of dietary choline intake on eye development of infants, support of such claims from internationally recognised scientific evidence is still pending. The Codex considers choline as an essential composition for infant formula but not for follow-up formula. Egg yolk, meat and nuts are good sources of choline.
Taurine is a major constituent of bile salts and is abundant in foetal and neonatal human brain. It plays an important role in the absorption of fat and fat soluble vitamins and maintenance of normal liver functions. Although taurine is commonly added to formula products because of the anticipated benefits on visual, auditory and intestinal development of infants, relevant evidence from human studies is lacking. The Codex considers mandatory addition of taurine is not necessary in formula products. Taurine is available from human breastmilk, and also in seafood and meat.
Nucleotides are core structural units of DNA and RNA. They are involved in protein synthesis and metabolic regulatory processes. Nucleotides are added to formula products to mimic breastmilk with the anticipated benefits of enhancing immune functions and promoting growth of infants. However, evidences of beneficial effects from nucleotide supplementation of infant formulae are not conclusive. The Codex does not require the addition of nucleotides in formula products. In fact, nucleotides could be produced in the human body and are widely available in foods.
Should I Give My Child Products With Added "Nutritive" Substances?
At present, the benefits from adding a number of substances voluntarily by manufacturers to formula products still lack international consensus. In the case of choline, taurine and nucleotides, although claims on their functions or health benefits may have been made on some formula products, only a few have been accepted in individual overseas jurisdictions, notably Singapore . These claims include those related to choline and overall mental function, taurine and overall mental and physical development, nucleotides and body's natural defence or normal cell function. Nevertheless, similar claims have not been permitted in other jurisdictions such as the European Union. Claims on choline, taurine and nucleotides made on formula products for infants and young children still need more scientific support, in particular from human studies.
All in all, there is no international consensus that formula products with additional "nutritive" substances provide added benefits to infants and children. In fact, normal infants below six months old could usually obtain adequate nutrients from breastmilk or infant formulae meeting the Codex basic compositional requirements. For older infants and young children who have started weaning, maintaining a balanced diet and consuming a variety of foods are crucial to obtaining different types of nutrients to support their growth and development.